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RCMP asks archivists to help identify stolen artifacts

At least some of the 1,300 recovered items thought to come from university collections.

By KAREN BIRCHARD | MAR 06 2013

The RCMP in Nova Scotia have appealed to university archivists and librarians across Canada for help in identifying a large cache of stolen manuscripts, books, artworks and other antiques, some of which they believe were taken from university collections. The cache of more than 1,300 items was found by the Mounties in January, leading to the arrest of a man well-known among the local heritage community. Police believe there are more items stashed in several other locations still to be found and estimate the haul so far could be worth close to $1 million.

Several universities had reported items missing from their collections, including Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent and Memorial. The recent haul has sparked a discussion about security measures in place at these institutions. Spokespersons at the three universities said it’s important for public institutions to keep archival material and special collections open to the public and to ensure that security measures are not so restrictive that access is difficult.

The recovery of the stolen artifacts goes back to last July, when an RCMP officer pulled over John Mark Tillman, 51, for a traffic violation outside Halifax. On the front seat of the car was a letter from British General James Wolfe written to his brother in 1758. Dalhousie University had reported such a letter missing in 2009. “It could have been taken before then,” said Michael Moosberger, Dalhousie’s archivist. “We noticed it was missing in 2009 after we did an inventory but we don’t have a precise date when it was stolen.”

When police showed Mr. Moosberger the letter, he saw that it was damaged. An embossed identifying stamp has been torn off along with several handwritten words. He said there are a number of other items missing from Dalhousie but said it’s difficult to get a handle on exactly how much is missing. All the boxes of material in the archives would stretch out seven kilometres, he said, and “there are lots of people coming and going.”

That discovery of the Wolfe letter, followed by an intensive police investigation and tips from the public eventually led the courts to issue a search warrant in January for Mr. Tillman’s 3,500-square-foot house in Fall River, Nova Scotia. Mr. Tillman was arrested and charged initially with four counts of possessing stolen goods. Police admit they were surprised by the sheer number of historical artifacts they found.

“This is one of the most unique files that I have investigated in my career,” said Sergeant Colin MacLean of the Halifax District RCMP in a press release. “The items that we have seized are vast in number and will take investigators in many different paths. One of the biggest challenges ahead will be determining ownership.”

Among the rare books they discovered, several of which are thought to belong to Mount Saint Vincent University, was a philosophy book printed in 1491. “It’s in excellent shape and there are little annotations in the margins, including a pointing finger,” said Terry Paris, the collections librarian at Mount Saint Vincent, of the book that went missing years ago following renovations to the library. “We all have pet books we use to show visitors and I liked to say this was printed a year before Columbus [set sail for America].”

Mount Saint Vincent said 30 books from its valuable MacDonald Collection are missing, including several early editions by Charles Darwin. One original edition of On the Origin of Species was in mint condition, which rare book dealers say could sell for more than $100,000. There are suspicions that the book may have been sold at a New York auction, so the FBI is now part of the ever-widening investigation.

When Joan Ritcey, director of Memorial’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies, heard about the items found at Mr. Tillman’s house, she contacted the RCMP to see if some missing sheet music was among the documents. Mr. Tillman had visited the centre several years ago and asked to see an 1853 composition by Henry Tillman that was six pages and in colour.

“He was so nice and showed his Nova Scotia driver’s licence. We put him in the rare book area with the sheet music and then he suddenly got up and walked out. We noticed immediately the music was missing and we had him on our closed circuit TV. We called the local constabulary immediately but he got away. We assumed it was a one-shot deal and the music was of family interest” given their shared surname. Even though the police investigation fizzled out, she kept the sign-out slips and ID information just in case.

No one knows how many valuable items go missing each year from university collections across the country. When items are reported missing, archivists say they are usually given low priority by police and the courts, which is why the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Rare Book and Manuscript Section (part of the American Library Association) puts missing items on line, working on the premise that the more eyes looking for the items, the better.

“It’s definitely an international problem. Archival thefts know no boundaries and many items are of irreplaceable cultural value,” said Alvan Bregman, head of technical services at the University of British Columbia libraries and chair of the security committee for the ACRL’s Rare Book and Manuscript Section.

He pointed out that it’s important to balance security with access, and that security doesn’t mean armed guards watching scholars but rather “sensible and manageable precautions.” His committee has published security guidelines online for university collections.

Dr. Bregman said the digitization of rare material has, paradoxically, increased demands to see and handle the originals. “But digital copies can help establish proof of ownership” if an item goes missing, he said.

The RCMP have started putting photos of some of the items online at a special website and will continue to add items they need help identifying. Dalhousie’s Dr. Moosberger has seen some of the recovered material in police custody. One thing that struck him about some of the documents was that “there was a systematic removal of material that had anything to do with [the schooner] Bluenose.”

[CORRECTION: In the original version of this article, it was indicated that the recovered Wolfe letter was valued at $18,000. The letter was not valued at that amount but rather a similar Wolfe letter went at auction for that price a number of years ago.]

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